Over my bed, or the thing I call my bed which used to be a couch but is kinda now more of a cot, suddenly bathed in an unnatural moonlight, is a seven-foot book with arms and legs. It’s a hardcover with a shiny commercial trade book cover. The title is set in a silvery font that jags and blurs out a little, like frost. It reads: THE COLDEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR. This was the title of a play the Drama Guild of my high school wrote and performed about homeless people for a one-act play competition. We didn’t win, but I always liked that title. I always wanted to use it for a kind of hard-boiled thriller thing. So here it is, looking down at me in the middle of the night as I lie awake worrying about writing it. Except this book is bigger than me and has huge, unblinking “Simpsons”-character eyes. And a vague look of frustrated disgust across its mouth. It even has an arched eyebrow. It lifts a lit cigar to its teeth and squints.
—So how am I coming along?
It even speaks without scare quotes, like one of those soulless characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The kind that kill people with like a special silver spork they’ve had made out of the cavity fillings of all their victims. The spork just keeps getting smelted down and made longer and longer as the trail of bodies stretches like an appendix scar across the open wasteland of West Texas. He speaks like a hardened, unyielding sheriff, possessed with his own wild menace. Like that kind of Cormac McCarthy kind of thing. Somebody I never heard of would play this book. And would come this close to winning an Oscar.
I’m quiet for what seems like a long time. The crazy old glove factory building we live in creeks and settles for the billionth time, finally coming to rest right exactly where it began. There’s a moth above all the piles of boxes of old cassette and video tapes that slope up over my resting place, the color of brown sugar spilled across a floor and left forever. The unblinking eyes darken behind the rising S of cheap cigar smoke. There’s blood thumping in my ear. I can almost hear my roommate tossing in his sleep a room away, it’s that quiet. There’s a rising dread inside me mixed with something careful, a need to get this just right.
“You’re coming along OK, I think.” It escapes me dryly. Like a coma patient’s first crusty words after a year in the spin cycle of their own skull. The platter-shaped eyes are unimpressed.
—I’m coming along OK?
It’s shiny cover glints brightly, catching moonshine. It sends an unforgiving halo right into my heavy-liddedness. It’s impossibly bright and I’m sightless for a breath. I can feel the blood releasing into my neck. A slow bead of sweat is sent directly down my ass crack. I have nothing but stars in my field of vision.
“I think I will get a lot done this week,” I offer, emboldened by the fact that we’re still talking and he’s yet to unviel his sharpened half-fork. He’s chomping on the wet end of the cigar, deciding the fate of the world. The wheels are turning behind the big eyes. The trim of his pages look golden and wet in the light of the moon. He cocks his eyebrow in a totally different way.
—Because I don’t want to mess up your process or anything.
I haven’t taken a breath in a while. I let some in, and blow out some bullshit along with the carbon monoxide. “Of course not! No, I wouldn’t think you would… I understand you’re concerned. I think that’s totally legitimate for you to feel… impatient.” I feel like I could keep swaying verbally like this back and forth for a while, but I pause to see if it’s having a soothing effect.
—You just don’t seem to be too hard at work on me.
I clam up. An airplane takes its time crossing our building overhead. It sounds like a nose stuffing up. Traffic on the bridge never seems to stop swooshing. You can almost hear him stepping on his mental clutch and switching gears.
—Do you know what it feels like to be unfinished?
—Incomplete. Hopelessly abandoned. Empty.
I run my finger across my top lip, hoping to wipe away whatever guilty juice seems to be pooling and collecting right under my nose.
The book takes the cigar out of its mouth and spits a little paper and tobacco out.
It’s said as an all-encompassing gesture. Threat and promise and command and ultimatum. It lifts itself away from the moonlight and back into the corner of the apartment it was born out of. I am afraid to move, even though my arm is falling asleep. An hour later I have to go to the bathroom. Not an atom has moved until I stretch up and head to whizz.
Jim Behrle tweets at @behrle for your possible amusement.